Billboards Ask Drivers for Tips on Wanted Felons

Banking on the success of a Kansas City program, a St. Louis crime-fighting group hopes to nab wanted felons with the help of billboards in eastern Missouri and southern Illinois.

St. Louis Regional CrimeStoppers, which covers 20 counties in eastern Missouri and southern Illinois, said Monday it recently began posting wanted ads on standard and digital billboards to elicit tips leading to the arrest of fugitive felons. Three that went up in the St. Louis-area in the last week already have generated half a dozen calls.

Program director Lisa Pisciotta said the billboards are another means to grab the attention of people who might be motivated to report information on felons anonymously in exchange for a reward of up to $1,000.

"The economy had nothing to do with this," Pisciotta said.

"It's an effective tool to get a picture out there. Not everybody has the Internet and time to look at wanted posters at the post office. If the picture is huge and catches their eye, they can use their knowledge to give us a call.

"They may know the person and may not know he's wanted."

Kathleen Ratcliffe, president of the St. Louis Convention & Visitors Commission, said she worries what impression the signs may leave on St. Louis visitors, but also believes this "very gutsy move" will be worth the risk if it gets offenders off the streets.

Across the state, the Greater Kansas City CrimeStoppers has featured 18 fugitives with homicide warrants on billboards since 2004. Tips generated by those signs have led to 12 arrests.

Sgt. Craig Sarver, of the Kansas City police department and the city's crime commission said billboards have been used to target certain suspects, but Kansas City was the first to use wanted billboards on an ongoing basis. Now, it's practically nationwide, he said.

After 19-year-old Ali Kemp was found murdered in June 2002 at a swimming pool in the Kansas City suburb of Leawood, Kan., her father approached Lamar Advertising, and the company donated billboard space seeking information in the case. Almost immediately, the signs generated tips that led to an arrest.

"It was so successful, it seemed like a natural fit," Sarver said.

Roger Kemp introduced Lamar to Greater Kansas City CrimeStoppers and the two have collaborated since 2004.

Three sign companies are donating time, effort and space to St. Louis Regional CrimeStoppers, including Lamar Advertising, DDI Media and Mid-America Outdoor Advertising. DDI started the project idea in St. Louis.

Mid-America has dedicated a portion of its digital billboard in East St. Louis, Ill., where Interstates 55, 70 and 64, converge, to the St. Louis CrimeStoppers' most wanted.

Once a minute, for 10 seconds, the billboard displays information about the St. Louis area's most wanted fugitives.

One of the advantages of digital billboards is the ability to change the information quickly.

"You can make copy changes from your desk," Mid-America owner and general manager Bob Connors said. "You don't have the delay times of traditional billboards."

All of the St. Louis group's billboards show the fugitive's name and photograph, the crime, and CrimeStopper's phone number.

The tipster remains anonymous, even while he or she receives a reward. The person is given a code number, and told where to pick up the reward money.

"It's very double 0-7," Pisciotta said.